ILLAWARRA COAL LEAGUE
Defending a premiership is always tough but Collegians skipper Jarrod Thompson admits the Dogs never knew how difficult it would be.
The defending premiers started the season strongly with impressive victories, including a 34-24 victory over Wests in round three and a 50-26 mauling of minor premiers Thirroul at Gibson Park in round six.
The victory over the Butchers as the result of a playmaking masterclass from 2013 grand final hero Sam Duggan, but both he and fullback Kyle Eather have since turned their strong form into regular spots with the Illawarra Cutters in the NSW Cup.
Injuries compounded the loss and saw Collies struggle through the middle of the season and at one point they looked in danger of missing the finals.
They've since been boosted by the return of key big man Jarrod Hickey and, with Country rep Blake Williamson alongside Thompson in the back-row, boast a pack the equal of any in the competition.
With Junior Teleni and Fijian international Alipate Noilea in the centres they also can, perhaps, lay claim to the best strike centre pairing and Thompson is adamant the Dogs are not a spent force ahead of their elimination minor semi-final against Wests.
"It's always hard when you lose a lot of key players but what do you do? We're very happy with the players we've got and everyone's bought in to what we're doing," Thompson said.
"We've had some big sessions the last couple of weeks and the attitude's really changed heading into the finals.
"We had a really good first half against Helensburgh last week and if we can put performances like that into 80 minutes we'll definitely give the comp a real shake."
While the long season has been tough on his side - with key personnel missing - Thompson is confident the Dogs can prove the final surprise packet.
"Everyone's buying into the belief that we can back it up from last year," he said.
"Everyone's putting in that extra effort at training, staying behind to work on the little things in defence and attack and in our kicking game and things like that."
The round-six thrashing of Thirroul was Collies' last win over a top-four side this season but Thompson is confident his side can produce an upset on Sunday.
"It's never an easy feat coming up against Wests with the quality players they have. It's always going to be a challenge but I really believe, with the players we have in our squad, we can get the job done," he said.